Asghar Farhadi's domestic drama "The Past" follows his exceptional, Oscar-winning "A Separation" and his very fine "About Elly." Farhadi is a hugely talented filmmaker, a storyteller with an uncommon touch for capturing the dramatic currents that course through families and refract between parents and children.
But his intricate domestic puzzles are unlocked less mysteriously in "The Past," the first French-language film for the Iranian director. You can see his method — melodramatic reveals meted out one by one — too clearly, like a magician failing to cloak his tricks.
The opening is beautiful. A woman (Berenice Bejo) waves to a man (Ali Mosaffa) leaving the airport. From the way they mime their hellos between glass and hurry together through the rain to her car, you think they're a couple. As she backs up and they peer backward, the ominous, grand title of "The Past" wipes across the screen.
It's also a fitting start: Farhadi's "A Separation" so memorably ended with divorcing parents separated by glass, as their daughter (forced to choose which parent to live with) walks between them — collateral damage to the feuding that led up until that point.
In "The Past," Farhadi has shifted languages and yet has completely translated his largely masterful technique. While sexist Iranian custom and law figured prominently in Farhadi's previous dramas, he's found a larger force of division in the ever-lurking past.
Mosaffa plays Ahmad, an Iranian man who left his wife, Marie (Bejo), four years earlier, leaving her to raise her two children (a young girl named Lea and Lucie, a teenager played by Pauline Burlet) alone in a working-class Paris suburb. He's returned from Tehran to finalize their divorce.
There's still warmth between them, though every interaction is heavy with their history. Marie didn't check him into a hotel, unsure he would come after canceling a previous trip. He knows the inner-workings of the house, which is in disarray. Lucie looks at him like the father she wishes she had.
Another boyfriend has moved in, too: the morose Samir (Tahar Rahim), along with his young, anxious son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). The majority of the film remains set in the rambling home, with tensions quickly accumulating and secrets spilling.
Mosaffa's performance is full of gentle, calm deliberateness. Though Ahmad isn't a father to any of the children, he bears a tinge of guilt at having left. Marie is breaking at the seams: She lashes out at Fouad for spilling a can of paint. With Lucie's urging, Ahmad explores how a family that was briefly his own has become such a mess.
Though the film is full of naturalistic drama, its plot twists feel increasingly contrived. The revelations could fill a soap opera's sweeps week: a pregnancy, an attempted suicide, a coma, secret love letters revealed. The drama leads where all domestic turmoil ultimately resides: the dry cleaner.
Samir runs such a shop just down the street from the pharmacy where Marie works, and it proves central to explaining the fate of Samir's wife. She's been in a coma for months.
"A Separation," too, was structured partly by its steady stream of secrets. And while "The Past" fails to weave in the surprise turns as successfully, it's still an exceptionally acted and affecting film. It radiates with Bejo's single-mother performance and a deep empathy for the overlapping hardships of family life.
"The Past," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for mature thematic content and brief strong language. Running time: 130 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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